Ever noticed how white our Christmases are? No I don’t mean the weather.
2020 has been quite a year – Covid aside, it has also been a year where a lot of us have woken up to the inequality and racism embedded in our societies. The Black Lives Matter movement has grown and gained momentum, and reflecting back I have personally been on a journey this year to try and understand more about systemic racism, structural racism and white privilege, and how it all fits together.
Reading books like Invisible Women, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Girl, Woman, Other, Parenting in Transracial Adoption, and a number of other books, I’ve been slowly starting to understand more about what White Privilege is and why most of us aren’t all that aware of it.
It embarrasses me that only this year, at 39, have I looked around at Christmas and wondered why Santa is white, why all the angels are white, why there appears to be no diversity at all at Christmas time in the images depicted.
I mean, Angels aren’t just white people (assuming you believe in them – unless you’re picturing a segregated heaven?)
Santa – who says a fictional magical character has to be a white guy?
Elves are not even human, yet somehow usually also white?
Jesus – a Jewish man from the Middle-East is also typically portrayed as white in many images, but we’ll leave that one alone for now – I’m not getting into a religious debate here….
Many people would argue that our classic depictions of Christmas as so white because they were popularised in the Victorian era, but again, there is this underlying belief that there were no black people then, as if Britain had no people of colour until recently (which is not remotely the case). Also, remember the hundreds and thousands of missionaries who went to Africa in the last 300 years to convert them to Christianity, and by the way succeeded to a large degree? Africa as a continent has an enormously high percentage of Christians who celebrate Christmas in the same way that we do. The fact that in this day and age, in 2020 we are still demonstrating an unconscious bias in the images we choose to portray holidays like Christmas is worrying and helps make it clear why there is still so much racism out there.
The backlash to the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad brought this home to me more than anything else.
For those of you not in the UK, Sainsbury’s, a major supermarket, released a Christmas advert featuring a black British family celebrating a traditional Christmas, making turkey, watching tv, and talking about their dad’s legendary gravy. And there was an enormous and very racist backlash from a lot of people outraged at the idea that a black family could celebrate a traditional British holiday in a traditional British way. It was just shocking and awful to see so much outrage and racism stem from something so innocuous.
If this has taught us anything, it’s that there needs to be more equal representation for people of colour at Christmas. It’s that white people need to see more people of colour visible at Christmas time, represented in their Christmas cards, and on stamps, and on Christmas tv adverts.
Diversity is important, and kids of all colours should see themselves represented in the world around them, including at seasonal holidays.
A classic example of white privilege here is the fact that I have never noticed the lack of diversity at Christmas, because I see myself represented everywhere, so it genuinely never occurred to me that others don’t. People upset by the Sainsbury’s ad were saying they refuse to shop there anymore because “they didn’t see themselves represented in that ad” – in one ad featuring a black family out of thousands of others showing white families.
Had I grown up as a black girl, I can imagine that by age 5, I’d have been asking my mum how come black people don’t go to heaven, if all the angels are always white? Or if there is a different, black santa that visits black children instead? I’d have been worrying that white santa doesn’t visit children of colour, and that black people must go somewhere else when they die, because that is the obvious assumption to draw from what you see around you all the time.
That is white privilege in a nutshell, not seeing this lack of representation, not noticing it at all, and not understanding why it matters, or how many unconscious biases are embedded within us as a result.
One thing that has been crystallised for me this year, in all that I have read, is why there is a growing anti-racist movement. Even I at the beginning found myself questioning why I needed to be “anti-racist” – can’t I just be, like, not a racist?
The answer is no.
There are a lot of people out there who are not racists, but passively using their white privilege, not seeing what is missing, not taking action, and that simply isn’t enough.
Being anti-racist is to take action, and to be an activist, not just a passive non-racist. So, for example, not just ignoring the lack of representation, but actively choosing to send your own family Christmas cards that feature diversity, to help normalise it and embed this within our culture year after year, or buying some deliberately non-white Christmas decorations for your tree. These are small things, but they do matter. If more people did this slowly it would seep through and become normalised, until no-one would be shocked to see an advert featuring people of colour celebrating Christmas.
Reading these books and thinking long and hard about my beliefs, my white privilege and my place in the world has, in my case, been catalysed because I am raising a mixed-race child, and I am actively trying to engage with her culture and heritage in a meaningful way, as well as learning about the challenges she may face. But an even bigger realisation for me is that I am only doing this because of my daughter.
Had I met a white partner and had my own white children, for example, I doubt I would have really thought that much about it at all. I would have continued not to notice the lack of representation at Christmas, I would have just moved house without thinking twice about the ethnic diversity of the area, I wouldn’t have bothered going out of my way to find children’s books with diverse characters in.
And that is the really sad part – because it’s not just about showing children of colour that they have a place in their world, that they belong at Christmas, or that their lives matter just as much. It’s also about ensuring that the next generation of white children know that too. And I’m not at all sure if I’d had my own white children I would have done the work. So in order to be an activist, in order to be an anti-racist, we must ensure that diversity is seen everywhere, in all homes, not just the mixed race homes, or the homes of people of colour.
So, with that in mind, what are YOU doing this year to show your friends and family that people of colour belong at Christmas too? If you have kids, how are you actively demonstrating your anti-racist beliefs and embedding those messages to normalise them? What are you doing to raise the next generation of anti-racists?